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Academy Sci Tech Awards: An Evening of Destruction and Voxels

February 9, 2015 | By

The winners of the Academy’s Scientific and Technical Achievement Awards. (All photos by Michael Yada / ©A.M.P.A.S.)

The winners of the Academy’s Scientific and Technical Achievement Awards. (All photos by Michael Yada / ©A.M.P.A.S.)

Most members of the Academy – let alone the Oscar’s viewing public – know the Sci Tech Awards as that highlight reel shown during the award broadcast, where an inventor of a device or process deemed helpful – perhaps indispensable – to the filmmakers’ art is rewarded with a certificate, or if they’re really lucky, an Oscar statue itself.

Increasingly, though, as the technology involved in image-capture expands – since fewer and fewer movies are made using film anymore – the Academy has found itself with more tools, and more creators, to honor. And as this technology becomes ubiquitous in other fields besides filmmaking, it turns out that a lot of those honorees have left the film biz altogether. If you invent an aperture specific to film cameras, or a new kind of dolly track, you’ll need to stay close to Hollywood for that particular ingenuity to be used. On a night where “multiple voxels” were getting a shout-out, you might wind up working instead in video games, or for corporations looking into 3-D imagery to sell their products, or perhaps doing black box research for Google.

Hosts Miles Teller and Margot Robbie.

Hosts Miles Teller and Margot Robbie.

That, at least, was the case at the particular table where Below the Line found itself this year, seated with Dan Piponi, Kim Libreri and George Borshukov who – along with other colleagues who were there, but not slated to come up and get an award – were being honored for a Universal Capture system created at ESC Entertainment that the Academy describes as “breaking new ground in the creation of realistic human facial animation.”

Along with folks being honored for the MOVA Facial Performance Capture System (an award not without its controversy, as The Hollywood Reporter recently ran a letter from the President and CEO of Reardon MOVA, saying the selection of honorees was incorrect, in terms of who should get full credit for developing the technology), it was the Academy’s night to recognize how “character makeup” has changed the face of movies, going back to The Matrix trilogy, the Oscar-winning FX work in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and more.

From left: Greg Croft, Chris King and Michael Sechrest.

From left: Greg Croft, Chris King and Michael Sechrest.

Foliage of different sorts was also recognized, as a system originally designed for rendering golf courses became, ultimately, DreamWorks Animation’s Foliage system, making trees, especially those deep woods of various fantasy epics, seem more realistic than ever before.

A more intimate kind of foliage was recognized in the honoring of Weta Digital’s Barbershop hair grooming system, used to outlandishly coiffe dwarves and many other creatures whose virtual wigs become indistinguishable from the real thing.

Aside from a certain recurring theme in recognizing work that alters or enhances how people look, “destruction” was another motif for the evening.

The Kali Destruction System, named for the Hindu goddess with a penchant to destroy, was, doubtless the evening’s best-named software system. Along with DMM – the Digital Molecular Matter toolkit – Kali was recognized for “realistic fracture and deformation simulations” which another of the night’s honorees, ILM’s PhysBAM system, also excelled at. You can’t, after all, have a successful franchise of movie tentpoles – whether set in space, or Justice League or Avenger Headquarters – unless stuff can blow up and implode convincingly.

From left: Jeff Budsberg, Scott Peterson and Jonathan Gibbs.

From left: Jeff Budsberg, Scott Peterson and Jonathan Gibbs.

So while it was a good night for destruction, it’s worth remembering Kali is also the goddess of time, change and power. Change – or perhaps lack of it – was another theme for the evening.

While the implements of movie-making continue to change rapidly, the creators of those implements all seemed quite familiar – which is to say, male and white. This was discussed among all the white males at our own table, along with their female guests, and it was then vigorously pointed out that the four Japanese creators of Sony’s BVM-E Series OLED Master Monitor – allowing “creative decisions to be made on set with confidence” – represented, almost, the breadth of the evening’s diversity.

Almost.

From left: Michael Fecik, Steven Tiffen and Jeff Cohen

From left: Michael Fecik, Steven Tiffen and Jeff Cohen

For when Collette Mullenhoff took the stage, for having helped create ILM’s Shape Sculpting System, it was she, as opposed to her three male counterparts, who received a standing ovation. Simply for being the only woman that evening who was receiving an award.

In this instance, this may or may not speak to the current conversation about diversity at Oscar time. After all, the Academy can’t help who invents the stuff that everyone in Tinsel Town starts using or rendering with. But it may well speak to the kinds of careers “girls” are encouraged to – or discouraged from – pursuing.

Meanwhile, back at our table, the reunion of the Universal Capture folks continued. They had other colleagues seated there, who’d helped craft the system, but weren’t the officially designated honorees. Only two of the group, Borshukov said, were still in film. He mentioned a couple of well-known retail brands he was working with, as they pursued some 3D-style marketing of their own.

From left: André de Winter and lain Neil

From left: André de Winter and lain Neil

Peponi had migrated to the research labs of Google X, where, he joked, he wasn’t really allowed to talk about what they were working on. “Like DARPA,” we remarked. “We have some ex-DARPA people for us,” Peponi replied, bemusedly.

Eventually, we were able to establish that neither teleportation, nor time travel, were current active projects there, even though there was some thought that each would need to be invented eventually.

What those inventions will do to entertainment, one can only imagine. As for the spacetime we’re left to deal with on this dimensional plane, however, hosts Margot Robbie and Miles Teller kept things moving along, or at least – given the stops and starts for dinner and dessert – allowed themselves to make increasingly welcome divergences from the teleprompter as the evening wore on.

From left: Allan Padelford and Robert Nagle

From left: Allan Padelford and Robert Nagle

The full list of honorees is below. It may be worth noting that there were five award recipients from Texas Instruments for their work on DLP Cinema projection has helped further usher in the switch from celluloid to pixels and voxels.

And what is a voxel? It’s like a 3D pixel – combination of “volume” and “pixel.” Expect more of them in the movies you’ll be seeing. And expect the Academy to grapple with eventually finding a bigger space than its comfortable Beverly Wilshire digs, simply because of the expanding number of software R&D teams they’ll be honoring.

Google X may not have invented time travel yet, but the future keeps steadily arriving, nonetheless.

The honorees for scientific and technical achievements are:

Technical Achievement Awards (Academy Certificates)

From left: Stephen Marshall, Erwin Coumans and Nafees Bin-Zafar.

From left: Stephen Marshall, Erwin Coumans and Nafees Bin-Zafar.


Peter Braun for the concept and development of the MAT-Towercam Twin Peek, a portable, remote-controlled, telescoping column that smoothly positions a camera up to 24 feet vertically. This small cross-section system from Mad About Technology can operate from above or below the camera, achieving nearly impossible shots with repeatable movements through openings no larger than the camera itself.

Robert Nagle and Allan Padelford for The Biscuit Jr. self-propelled, high-performance, drivable camera and vehicle platform. The Biscuit Jr.’s unique chassis and portable driver pod enables traveling photography from a greater range of camera positions than previously possible, while keeping actors safe and the rig out of frame.

From left Ron Fedkiw and Brice Criswell.

From left Ron Fedkiw and Brice Criswell.

Harold Milligan, Steven Krycho and Reiner Doetzkies for the implementation engineering in the development of the Texas Instruments DLP Cinema digital projection technology. Texas Instruments’ color-accurate, high-resolution, high-quality digital projection system has replaced most film-based projection systems in the theatrical environment.

Cary Phillips, Nico Popravka, Philip Peterson and Colette Mullenhoff for the architecture, development and creation of the artist-driven interface of the ILM Shape Sculpting System. This comprehensive system allows artists to quickly enhance and modify character animation and simulation performances. It has become a crucial part of ILM’s production workflow over the past decade.

From left: James O’Brien Ben Cole and Eric Parker.

From left: James O’Brien Ben Cole and Eric Parker.

Tim Cotter, Roger van der Laan, Ken Pearce and Greg LaSalle for the innovative design and development of the MOVA Facial Performance Capture system. The MOVA system provides a robust way to capture highly detailed, topologically consistent, animated meshes of a deforming object. This technology is fundamental to the facial pipeline at many visual effects companies. It allows artists to create character animation of extremely high quality.

Dan Piponi, Kim Libreri and George Borshukov for their work in the development of Universal Capture at ESC Entertainment. The Universal Capture system broke new ground in the creation of realistic human facial animation. This technology produced an animated, high-resolution, textured mesh driven by an actor’s performance.

Marco Revelant for the original concepts and artistic vision, and to Alasdair Coull and Shane Cooper for the original architectural and engineering design, of the Barbershop hair grooming system at Weta Digital. Barbershop’s unique architecture allows direct manipulation of full-density hair using an intuitive, interactive and procedural toolset, resulting in greatly enhanced productivity with finer-grained artistic control than is possible with other existing systems.

From left: Peter Cucka, Ken Museth and Mihai Aldén.

From left: Peter Cucka, Ken Museth and Mihai Aldén.

Michael Sechrest for the modeling design and implementation, Chris King for the real-time interactive engineering and Greg Croft for the user interface design and implementation of SpeedTree Cinema. This software substantially improves an artist’s ability to create specifically designed trees and vegetation by combining a procedural building process with the flexibility of intuitive, direct manipulation of every detail.

Scott Peterson, Jeff Budsberg and Jonathan Gibbs for the design and implementation of the DreamWorks Animation Foliage System. This toolset has a hierarchical spline system, a core data format and an artist-driven modeling tool, which have been instrumental in creating art-directed vegetation in animated films for nearly two decades.

Erwin Coumans for the development of the Bullet physics library, and to Nafees Bin Zafar and Stephen Marshall for the separate development of two large-scale destruction simulation systems based on Bullet. These systems demonstrated that large numbers of constrained rigid bodies could be used to animate visually complex, believable destruction effects with minimal simulation time.

Brice Criswell and Ron Fedkiw for the development of the ILM PhysBAM Destruction System. This system incorporates innovative research on many algorithms that provide accurate methods for resolving contact, collision and stacking into a mature, robust and extensible production toolset. The PhysBAM Destruction System was one of the earliest toolsets capable of depicting large-scale destruction with a high degree of design control.

Ben Cole for the design of the Kali Destruction System, to Eric Parker for the development of the Digital Molecular Matter toolkit, and to James O’Brien for his influential research on the finite element methods that served as a foundation for these tools. The combined innovations in Kali and DMM provide artists with an intuitive, art-directable system for the creation of scalable and realistic fracture and deformation simulations. These tools established finite element methods as a new reference point for believable on-screen destruction.

Magnus Wrenninge for leading the design and development of Field3D. Field3D provides a flexible and open framework for storing and accessing voxel data efficiently. This allows interchange between previously incompatible modeling, simulation and rendering software.

Robert Bridson for early conceptualization of sparse-tiled voxel data structures and their application to modeling and simulation. Robert Bridson’s pioneering work on voxel data structures and its subsequent validation in fluid simulation tools have had a significant impact on the design of volumetric tools throughout the visual effects industry.

Ken Museth, Peter Cucka and Mihai Alden for the creation of OpenVDB. OpenVDB is a widely adopted, sparse hierarchical data structure that provides a fast and efficient mechanism for storing and manipulating voxels.

Scientific And Engineering Awards (Academy Plaques)

lain Neil for the optical design, and to Andre de Winter for the mechanical design, of the Leica Summilux-C series of lenses. Incorporating novel telecentric multi-element aspherical optics, these camera lenses have delivered unprecedented optical and mechanical performance.

Brad Walker, D. Scott Dewald, Bill Werner, Greg Pettitt and Frank Poradish for their contributions furthering the design and refinement of the Texas Instruments DLP Cinema projection technology, whose high level of performance enabled color-accurate digital intermediate preview and motion picture theatrical presentation. Working in conjunction with the film industry, Texas Instruments created a high-resolution, high-quality digital projection system that has replaced most film-based projection systems in the theatrical environment.

Ichiro Tsutsui, Masahiro Take, Mitsuyasu Tamura and Mitsuru Asano for the development of the Sony BVM-E Series Professional OLED Master Monitor. These precise, wide-gamut monitors allow creative image decisions to be made on set with confidence that the desired images can be accurately reproduced in postproduction.

John Frederick, Bob Myers, Karl Rasche and Tom Lianza for the development of the HP DreamColor LP2480zx Professional Display. This cost-effective display offered a stable, wide color gamut, allowing facility-wide adoption in feature animation and visual effects studios.

Academy Award of Commendation (Special Plaque)

Steven Tiffen, Jeff Cohen and Michael Fecik for their pioneering work in developing dye-based filters that reduce IR contamination when neutral density filters are used with digital cameras. The Tiffen Company identified the problem and rapidly engineered a series of absorptive filters that ameliorated infrared artifacts with lenses of all focal lengths. These widely adopted filters allow cinematographers to work as they have done with film-based technology.

Academy Award of Merit (Oscar Statuette)

Dr. Larry Hornbeck for the invention of digital micromirror technology as used in DLP Cinema projection. The Digital Micromirror Device (DMD) is the core technology that has enabled Texas Instruments’ DLP Cinema projection to become the standard of the motion picture industry.

Gordon E. Sawyer Award (Oscar Statuette)

David Gray – given to an individual in the motion picture industry whose technological contributions have brought credit to the industry.

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